John Davidson


City: New York
Venue: Webster Hall
Date: 2003-12-16
The current fad for all things New York New Wave has come to us via the NYC "hipster" scene, a scene defined by self-absorption and lacking in any discernible self-deprecation or wit. Stellastarr*, with their punchy Eighties-influenced pop-rock, fit the current New York zeitgeist, but are distinguishable from their arched-pose posse of peers, first by a refusal to take themselves too seriously, and second, by the sweet beat of their sound. While others out there are caught up in being a "rock band", Stellastarr* are out there rocking. Stellastarr* have set their path through a now traditional art-school route. The band members met at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute, and singer/guitarist Shawn Christensen apparently identifies first as a painter, and only then as a musician. It's questionable how long that's likely to last beyond the opening round of publicity, but for now at least, it provides the band with a certain definition. Unsurprisingly perhaps, they have already made a significant splash in England, where the art-school tradition, emanating from Syd Barrett, and traveling on through Roxy Music, seems to continue forever on. In a world where shorter distance exists between artsy urban enclaves, word travels faster. Having toured the U.K. this fall, first in support of Jane's Addiction and then with a headline tour of their own, this is already a tight unit. The group members offer separate and distinct personalities, and recall influences and references so peculiar and unalike that they will likely grow into nothing but themselves. At Webster Hall, Stellastarr* finished a brief U.S. tour in support of Placebo, and one can only imagine that most bands in Placebo's position would have long ago taken the opportunity to unplug several amps during the warm-up set, hoping to muster enough power of their own to erase recollection of the dynamism that just preceded them. Certainly it didn't happen on this occasion. Stellastarr* left the headline band looking very much a marginal attraction, displaying more power, a broader range of material, and a more considered focus during their set. Placebo aren't entirely without worthwhile material themselves, but in the wake of the opening band, their music appeared one dimensional, and the distracting cabaret histrionics of bass player Stefan Olsdal brought Stellastarr*'s pointed focus on songs into sharp relief. As is required, Christensen is the most keenly stylized group member. Tall, dark and fine-featured, he recalls Stuart Adamson of Big Country, although the unkind might see a bouffant that need no more resemble the winged flight of A Flock of Seagulls' Michael Score than it already does; in spite of which, Christensen portrays a natural confidence and swagger, along with an assurance that seems to emerge from a knowledge or intelligence informed outside of his position as front man of a rock band. In contrast, guitarist Michael Jurin's stage presence is somewhat fey, but belied by the intensity of his playing. More than any other member of the group, you picture Jurin holed up in a bedsit apartment, strumming chords 'til his fingers bleed. Bassist Amanda Tannen occupies the other wing, and the obvious comparison to draw is with Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads. Petite, blonde, female -- except, of course, that is too easy. Trouble lies in recognizing gender, but there's undeniable power in the likes of Weymouth, Gail Ann Dorsey and Me'shell Ndegeocello, women diminutive in stature but huge on talent, wrestling sounds from instruments as big as themselves. Drummer Arthur Kremer completes the quartet, reminding me of a saying in soccer, that you have to be crazy to be a goalkeeper; the same notion is widely held to be true about drummers, and Kremer brings to the band a needed thrashing presence, a crazed shirtless punk with rock 'n' roll shades and a Sellastarr* asterisk plastered across his bare chest in electric tape. Despite such an odd assortment of comparisons -- in addition to Big Country, and Talking Heads, throw in the vocals of the Cure's Robert Smith -- in spirit at least, Stellastarr* remind me most of Blondie. I have yet to quite fathom out why this is, except that possibly it's related to a splendid series of three-minute power pop performances? The larger point, however, is this: these comparisons bear almost no relation to one another, and more clearly suggest the breeding of an individualized vision. On this occasion, the band opened with their current single, "In The Walls", and played the majority of their eponymous debut album, all the way to the ending, defiantly happy bounce of "Pulp Song". The recipe itself is simple to observe, if harder to execute: write good songs, know how to play them, and do so. On this evidence at least, Stellastarr* are on their way.
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